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Austin Chronicle The Real Sound

By Jim Caligiuri

APRIL 27, 1998:  It's the Tuesday night after South by Southwest '98 and one would think that following the music industry's premier music festival, Austin would be staying home and recovering. Not at Jovita's on South First, they aren't - the place is packed, folks enjoying the new outdoor patio stage, tasty Mexican food, smooth margaritas, and the music provided by Don Walser and His Pure Texas Band. After all, it is Tuesday and Walser's been playing the same joint on the same night on a weekly basis for years. Midway through the set, Walser calls up a couple of members of the Austin Lounge Lizards, who happen to be in the audience enjoying themselves, and the resulting couple of songs are an utterly Austin moment. Walser revels in it, enjoying the Lizards' good-natured wackiness as much as, if not more than, the crowd. That's his nature, of course; for most of his 63 years, Walser's been nothing but a sweet man with a heart of gold, who loves his life and returns the love he gets in triplicate.

Next Tuesday the affection will surely grow as Walser releases his latest and long-awaited album, Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, which the local legend is genuinely excited about when he talks about it a couple of weeks later before another Jovita's Tuesday night.

"I think it's the best thing I've put out so far," says Walser, lighting up with his charismatic grin. "I picked Ray Benson as producer again, because in Austin he's the only one that knows more about the music than I do. He knows the instrumentation that they used back in the Forties and Fifties and that's a vital thing when you start making my kind of record. You know my kind of music has a lot of music in it. Nowadays they just play chords and riffs, the country people do, and they get to where they can't really play.

"What I would like to show people is what the old music sounded like when you went to a show," explains Walser. "They couldn't capture that on record in the old days. I'm trying to put the real sound back into it, using the same instrumentation and all, but having that good, separated sound."

photograph by John Carrico

To say he and Benson have accomplished this may well be an understatement. Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In is a marvelous collection of tunes from some of the best songwriters of the 20th century. Besides the couple that Walser himself wrote, it features songs from Irving Berlin, Jimmie Rodgers, Cindy Walker, and the Louvin Brothers among others, performed in Walser's style of traditional country music, a finely tuned blend of Western swing and honky-tonk that features his sweet vocals and trademark yodel.

"I picked most of the songs this time," says Walser. "Seymour Stein [president of his new label, Sire Records] sent a big list of songs that he thought would be nice to hear on the record and I picked two off of that. The rest are songs I've been singing for years. They're what I call 'Stickers'; they stick in your mind and they don't go away. I always try to put a couple of my own on a record, but those are old tried and true records that were number one in their day."

The biggest difference with this album as opposed to his other three releases on Watermelon (The Archive Series, Vols. 1 &2, Rolling Stone From Texas, and Texas Top-Hand) is the label. Walser decided to stay on the small, Austin-based indie because of its recent partnership with Stein's Sire imprint.

"There was a bidding war between Sire and Sony," explains Walser, "and the reason I wanted to sign with Sire is because of Seymour and all that he's done. No matter what they give you up front, they're gonna take it out of your hide on the back end anyway."

Walser lets out a big chuckle.

"He's a music fan, all kinds of music. We were together in New York City having lunch together and we started singing some old country songs and he knew some of them better than I did. He told me I could sing the phone book, and I told him I didn't believe it would sell."

He has an even bigger laugh, then speaks his mind in one big breath.

"The biggest complaint I have is that on a weekly basis and sometimes on a daily basis we get a call from someone who can't find my records. It makes me feel bad that it's not out there good enough for them to find. I'm hoping with Sire under the Warner Bros. umbrella that they'll have a distribution system. You can't sell records if they can't find it."

While Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In looks like Walser's big break - his best album on a big label with good distribution - there are still plenty of obstacles between Walser and nationwide name recognition on the level that he enjoys here in Austin.

"If this record don't make me," says Walser sincerely, "I don't know if I got one in me that will. Because I'm not gonna change nothing. I was forced to play rock & roll in the Fifties, but that's not what I really want to do. I really feel like it won't sell big, unless we can get radio play on the Top 40 country stations and that's not apt to happen.

"I went to Nashville once and they told me, 'This is beautiful stuff you have here, but we haven't done it in 20 years.' I told them that 20 years from now I'd be making the same music. The only drawback to making this kind of music is how will you get it heard? The Americana stations will play it, the college radio stations will play it, the public radio stations will play it, but mainstream radio won't touch it. How does the country music fan know they won't like it if they never get to hear it?"

That, of course, is a common complaint from those in the alternative country crowd, even if Walser's music is more country than alternative. Not that he doesn't try. Surely one of the high points of the new disc, and one that's sure to be thoroughly discussed for its unique pairing, is Walser's collaboration with the world-renowned Kronos Quartet on Oscar Hammerstein's "Rose Marie."

Listening to the tune, in fact, it's hard to say who's being more adventurous here. Kronos is the string quartet known for its eccentric, some would say modern, approach to classical music, having music from many non-classical 20th century artists in their repertoire, Jimi Hendrix for example. Walser on the other hand has always drawn a diverse audience. (In fact this writer, and others, were introduced to Walser's music courtesy of the Butthole Surfers.) He explains how the Pure Texas Band and the Kronos Quartet came together one fateful day at the Bates Recital Hall.

"Their cello player [Joan Jeanrenaud] is a fan of mine," recounts Walser. "She requested that I come and sing with them when they played in Austin, kinda open up for them. They had five songs that I sing that they had classical arrangements on and we practiced that day, then we played the gig that night. They played first for about an hour and then we played for about an hour and then we did those five songs together.

"They would do a classical introduction to them and then me and the band would join in with them. I tell you it was something else. The audience wanted an encore, so we did one of the songs over again. Then they wanted another encore, so we did another one over again. And they still wanted more after that.

"It's such a unique thing; you've got country music on one end and classical music on the other - to put them together so they sound good. They knew what they were doing, that's for sure. They were the difference. After that, I wanted them on the record, that was my idea. I kinda wanted the Butthole Surfers on it, too. They said they wanted to do it, but I could never get a hold of them."

Ray Benson and Don Walser at the Austin Music Awards
photograph by John Carrico

He lets out another big chuckle at the thought and then captures the essence of his nearly universal appeal.

"I find that most everybody, no matter what kind of music they play themselves, they still like that ol' time country music."

Born in 1934 in tiny Brownfield, Texas, in the Panhandle very close to the New Mexico border, and raised in the slightly larger Lamesa, Texas, 37 miles to the south, Walser can't remember a time when he wasn't singing country music.

"My mother died when I was about 12 and the people in the town kinda looked after me," he remembers. "It was a real small town. I called it a one-horse town and I knew the guy that bought the horse."

The twinkle in his eyes gets brighter.

"As long as I can remember I just had to sing every day. You know there's musicians who can play and there's other musicians that have to play and I'm one of those that have to play and I still have to play and I always will. The best way for me to die is to collapse onstage when I'm around 110."

He lets out a big cackle.

"Even when I was a little bitty boy, I started to sing. When I was just a kid, I could hear a song one time and know it. It would be just like a record playing in my head. I don't know how to explain it, exactly. It's like someone with a photographic memory. One of my teachers once said if she could make everything rhyme I'd be the smartest kid in her class."

In 1957, Walser started working as a mechanic for the National Guard, a job he kept in quite a few cities around Texas until 1989 when he went to work for the State of Texas. Throughout that time, he was always making music. In the early Eighties, he spent some time in El Paso, where he sometimes played five or six nights a week, but mostly, he claims to have been just another "weekend warrior." In 1984, he and his family moved to Austin, but it wasn't until 1994, when he officially retired, that he decided to go into music full time.

Lots of admirable things have come Walser's way since retirement. He has released two critically acclaimed CDs of new music and a couple of collections of recordings from his earlier days. He's been on national television numerous times and been inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. There's also been lots of traveling, including to the Olympics in 1996, where he was invited to play; some work on commercials for Mrs. Baird's bread, Southwest Airlines, and one for the California Lottery that he claims helped get him his house.

Lately, Walser has made an appearance in movie called Hi-Lo Country, starring Woody Harrelson, Patricia Arquette, and Sam Elliot ("I'm just singing a song, 'I'm Gonna Hold You in My Heart 'til I Can Hold You in My Arms.' We played that song for two solid days. I was beginning to get tired of it"), scheduled for release later this year. He's also got a song on the high-profile soundtrack to the new Robert Redford movie, The Horse Whisperer.

Walser claims that he's up to the promotional schedule that will be involved with the release of the new album. There are upcoming tours to Florida and California as well as appearances at several summer music festivals, and even a cruise in September, where his band will play every day on board a ship that sails from Tampa to Cozumel and back. He downplays any rumors of bad health.

"I just need to get some weight off," he says. "That's my goal for this year to try and trim down a little - that and get my rest."

Still, one has to wonder if Walser's weight problem and lack of mobility will impact his ability to be as active as he needs to be to assure that his new release will be heard by those that need to hear it beyond Austin. The talk turns serious for a moment as words like legacy and death get spoken.

"I really believe," he says solemnly, "that when you pass from this good earth your kids and grandkids will remember you for a long time, but further than that nobody's gonna remember who you are unless you've been an astronaut or written some good books. I feel real privileged to be able to leave a little music."

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